100 Shows and Still Smiling

by Natalie Robin

For the set of Sweeney Todd in 2005, Perlman constructed a three-story steel set that turned audience chamber sideways and used the existing masonry and brick wall of the theatre as the upstage wall.
For the set of Sweeney Todd in 2005, Perlman constructed a three-story steel set that turned audience chamber sideways and used the existing masonry and brick wall of the theatre as the upstage wall.
Glenn Perlman makes a home—and some great sets—at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company

After 100 shows, anyone would rightfully be tired—especially if that person was in charge of all of the scenic construction of 100 complex and beautifully rendered productions at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, Pa. But not Glenn Perlman. Perlman, the technical director at Arden, has built sets at the Arden for 15 years and still looks forward to the next one.

A Head Start

 

Glenn Perlman with his son Max at the opening night of Pinocchio.
Glenn Perlman with his son Max at the opening night of Pinocchio.

Perlman’s backstage work started young, when he helped set up assemblies in grade school. A strong high school theatre program in the Cheltenham School District (just outside Philadelphia) had a trickle-down effect to the grade school as well, and he was helping volunteer dad Mr. Bernstein on Damn Yankees while he was still in the sixth grade. He even attended a summer school theatre class between seventh and eighth grades.

 

Glenn’s parents encouraged his interest in the arts, taking him to shows at Villanova University, to touring productions that came through town, and even journeying up to New York City for Broadway shows. “My parents understood the importance of live theatre,” Glenn says, and he remains appreciative of all the money they would spend to take him to theatre.

The opportunity to practice theatre continued through high school. Glenn’s high school (which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary) spent $10,000 on spring musicals every year, with students working on them from Christmas break until Mother’s Day. He learned from patient adults who took the time to teach him, including a professional scenic painter who designed their sets. Over the summers, Glenn worked with contractors to get “real world carpentry” experience—and he still uses some of the tricks he learned back in high school today.

After a stint at NYU studying to be a set designer, Glenn changed courses and after some time off transferred to Allentown College (now DeSales) as a tech major. Dr. Howard Jones, a graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts (now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts), was the TD there and helped make it clear to Glenn that he had “found the right school for me, with the freedom to build my own curriculum.”

After school Glenn worked at a small LORT-D theatre as a carpenter and TD, then landed at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, working as master carpenter for their 18 shows each year.  He was given all of the tricky projects and he was able to set quality controls for the guys on the floor. In his two years there, Glenn, who was always interested in working efficiently, really learned how to focus on, and understand, the big picture. “That was a great job for me,” says Glenn, fondly.

Eventually Glenn returned to Philadelphia and got the call from Arden. The company was about 10 years old at that time and had just moved into their new building—and when Glenn met everyone at the theatre, he knew it “was just a perfect match.” Now, 15 years later, Glenn has seen the Arden grow from a “small scrappy company” into a close-knit professional family producing incredible high-quality work. “It feels kind of like how you look at your children and say ‘How did you get to be a teenager?’ But it still feels very right—I don’t think about the next step. I just think of what’s coming along here next.”

Making the Sets Sing

 

The set for Pinocchio, Glenn Perlman’s 100th show with the Arden Theatre Company
The set for Pinocchio, Glenn Perlman’s 100th show with the Arden Theatre Company

Like many backstage workers, Glenn prefers not to be in the spotlight. But that’s OK, because his work has so influenced and impressed those around him they were happy to talk about just how big an influence he’s been, both on Arden Theatre and themselves.

 

Glenn’s institutional knowledge at the Arden is “vast,” according to Courtney Rigger, the production manager at the Arden. “If [anything has] ever happened in this building before, I can ask him and he will remember how it happened before or he can tell me where to find the information.” Rigger credits Glenn with working at the highest caliber possible and not apologizing for it: “He always tells me that a long time ago Terry Nolen [artistic director at the Arden] told him ‘Don’t be afraid to hold other people to your standards.’” So he isn’t, and he does. The result is that “I know as soon as I put a show in his hands, it is going to be phenomenal looking.”

Glenn puts the credit back on others at the Arden, explaining “It is a very well-run company and we don’t overextend ourselves and people work very hard because people are very passionate about the work.”

But that’s not the whole story, according to the artistic director of the Arden, Terry Nolen. “When we are having design meetings, Glenn will say ‘How does this choice or idea tell the story?’” Nolen shares. Nolen credits Glenn’s skill at asking the right questions at the right time for keeping productions on track, and helping designers, directors and technicians find their way through the process: “Every time it looks like we have hit some kind of roadblock, Glenn finds a way to make it work,” says Nolen. “He gets how plays are made.”

And he enjoys the process, too. Glenn has cultivated the ability to maintain his sense of humor throughout the production. Even when he is stumped has an ability to laugh at the hard stuff. “When we are coming up against a hard problem, as long as Glenn is joking about it, I feel very confident about our ability to accomplish it,” says Courtney. It’s when Glenn stops laughing that she starts to worry. When the Arden produced The Threepenny Opera, the design called for a flying jail cell. Courtney remembers that, at first, Glenn was joking about it, but then it “got to the point where he stopped joking about it.”

Ultimately, after staying in the theatre until two or three in the morning Glenn finally said that they would have to give up on the jail and find another solution. “And we did, and no one would have ever known there was another idea,” Courtney says. “He can look at a set and know that it’s out of his reach. If he knows that the set is worth it for the play and telling the story, he will go above and beyond to reach that bar.”

Designers appreciate all that effort, too. For set designer David Gordon, working with Glenn Perlman is a unique experience. “The Arden really doesn’t have the budget, personnel, space or time to build shows of the quality that they do,” he says, and he credits it all to Glenn. “[He] just gets it [and has] an innate sense of how to make things look good and right.”

After working more than 17 shows together Gordon has learned to really trust Glenn, which frees him as a designer. In one of his designs, Gordon designed a deck with wall-to-wall carpeting—except for a border that was intended to look like inlaid wood. Gordon had assumed that the wood would have to be painted but, instead, Glenn did a real inlaid floor: “It looked gorgeous.” And since the space at the Arden is extremely intimate “little details, little effects and the quality of finish really count for something.”

Similarly, set designer James Kronzer has been very proud of the bang for the buck that Glenn delivers. “As our relationship has deepened and grown over the years, [I realized] how much I rely on him to complete an artistic vision,” Kronzer says.

And Kronzer has always been impressed with the amount of quality scenery that Glenn can build. On The Baker’s Wife, an early show that Kronzer designed at the Arden, “We put this little French village on stage and Glenn pulled it off beautifully.” And this was only one of the many times that Kronzer has thrown “enormous challenges” at Glenn that turned out to be “exceptional work.”

One of Glenn’s bigger challenges was the Arden’s production of Sweeney Todd. The design called for the audience chamber to be turned sideways and have the set use the existing masonry and brick wall of the theatre as the upstage wall. For that “herculean” effort, they did have extra long build time and extra money, and Glenn built a three-story steel set—but the effort and perfectionism Glenn puts out doesn’t stop for just the high-profile shows. The children’s show If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, called for a suburban kitchen set built to 150% scale in forced-perspective from down low on the floor so that the full-grown men looked like an 8-year-old boy and a mouse. Because the walls leaned in and everything was tapered for the perspective, no stock materials could have been used, and everything had to be custom-made to unusual specs. It goes without saying that the result looked great, a fact that everyone at Arden appreciates.

“It is just such a fantastic blessing to have him in this company,” says Courtney. “He has been integral into the artistic growth of this company. He is committed to the art of this company, and this company has flourished because of it. I hope that Glenn stays around for another 100 shows.”